Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bruine kroegen (Brown cafés)

     We are in the swing of making plans for a few weeks of American family visits, which of course include the Amsterdam walking tour and surely the canal boat trip. One can easily do these in one day.
     At this time of the year we will definitely visit the Keukenhof (the national botanical gardens) and view the surrounding miles of tulip fields that color the ground. As that requires Greenwheels we will use the rest of the day and visit typical Dutch villages and towns.
     But there are many more days to fill. One of those should be a kroegentocht (phonetically: kroeg-a-tog-th). Such a pub crawl is a part of Amsterdam one would be remiss not to offer even to a teetotaler.
     How did cafes come to be, one might ask? Well here we go: It all emerged from a mid-nineteenth century Flemish trend (let no one ever say the Dutch do not like those Belgians they so often abuse in their jokes), of opening ones living room for strangers to visit.  There the lady of the house served the in those days more and more popular drink of coffee to any visiting commoner. That little side enterprise provided the hosts a way to make an extra buck in times of economic hardship, thus creating the new burgeoning industry of cafes (French for coffee).
     These in-home gathering places eventually morphed into what is now known as bruine kroegen (brown cafes).
     In the heyday of those unlicensed and unregulated times, during the days the US had their civil war, one in six Flemish homes had mom serving coffee, let me correct that to say "beer" in her living room. Because by then, since water was of dubious quality, beer had also made the menu.
     It is a proven human trait that alcohol wins the popularity battle over coffee and since no alcohol license was required to sell beer, and more and more regulars asked for beer, the manufacturers, often monasteries, obliged the market demands and jacked up their alcohol percentages.
     Dear reader, just visualize the following: every Friday the boss handed out a little brown envelope, which Hans opened in a now brown cafe on his way home or worse the employer had socializing organized in the cafe of choice handing out the brown envelopes there. Brown cafe I said, because smoking over the years had stained the walls and ceilings of many of these competing living rooms, which were filled by now with full-sized bars and shiny beer taps, the walls covered and cabinets filled with innumerable brass or glass objects absorbing every inch of free display area; where rugs were placed on the tables instead of on the floors, which most often were of wood covered with sand to absorb the spills of unsteady drinkers who should be on their way home to hungry wife and children.
     It got out of hand so government had to step in. So did government start first with a process of licensing the cafe industry? Of course not: the first law was ..... drumroll .....: "we do not allow employers to pay wages in these establishments"!!!!
Only when that did not work, did they start licensing. It took for example till 1966 for the Dutch government to state, that the minimum size of a cafe was to be 35 sq meters or 350 sq ft. The smallest exception to that is a cafe in the city of Maastricht with a size of 200 sq ft.
Throwing peanuts on the floor, try that at home
     All those present day "living room substitutes" are very often frequented by regular guests or "stamgasten". For you guys across the pond, just revisit Cheers with Cliff and Norm perched on their barstools.
Find the stamgast
     Even today when visiting a bruine (brown) kroeg one expects the same guy on the same stool at the same time of the day to be staring at a beer or genever (our Dutch "single malt" of gins). 
Bar Queen Blonde Sien

     A present day count in Amsterdam of cafes is 1476 and Sandee and I created from there a short list for our guests of 43 real old unique brown cafes that had all the traits of a must do experience: like "gezelligheid" (phonetically: khuh-ZEL-ikh-hide), and with the required assorted tacky stuff hanging from ceiling and walls. They also must have a colorful owner or server and special stories associated with the establishment.
     I hope you readers appreciate the fact that we will do what needs to be done for our guests even at the cost of our health.
This is gezelligheid
     As to the concept of "gezelligheid", this absolutely Dutch term is almost indescribable and yet it is an essential ingredient to the experience of visiting The Netherlands. Without sensing it or exclaiming it or just plain wallowing in it you have not gotten a Dutch vacation.
     Here is what one must have taken away from coming to Amsterdam and definitely when visiting a bruine kroeg: there must be "coziness", "snugness", "sociability" and yes try this term from a really trying wordsmith: "companionableness" or for Dutch people "gezelligheid".
     Sandee and I shortened the list further to 10 cafes for us to visit on a cold and drizzly afternoon, as we were certain we could drink our way through those before dinner.
     To our shame we must admit, we only made 4 of those, which tells you how much "sociability" we encountered. The search for the best to show our American visitors continues.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Across the canal from us two little Peugeot cars have been ogling at us since we moved in. For those who don't know about Greenwheels: those cars reflect the last bastion of approved sin in this "we all use public transportation" country. We do have like most countries our quorum of sinners as 7 households out of 10 do have a car.
As a contrast, the US considers soft drug use sinful and our 2.28 cars per household a necessity. One must reflect here however, that Holland has 1045 people living together on one square mile instead of the 88 in the US. And please also consider that 9000 people per square mile live and park cars in Amsterdam, making parking each day in the city 5 times more expensive than having a joint once a day per household. Which of course does not imply that every household smokes joints. Sandee and I have never tried one.
See our Apartment across the Canal?
Almost every Dutch resident has an "OV card" loaded with euros, which allows an easy hop on and hop off on trams, metro, bus and train even on a bicycle, all simply charged against this card based on a countrywide gps calculating fare system. A web based itinerary system gets you from place A to B within minutes precise, telling you where and when to get on what tram or train and how long your legs will have to do the walking to tram or train, while at the same time presenting you the budgeted cost beforehand. A google map system assist those who don't know where they are or where they are going.
So why would you commit the sin of driving a car? Well for one, the beckoning presence of a car for hire across the canal that says subliminally "come drive me at a discount with your OV card". So Sandee and I fell for the siren call and rationalized, that some locations are too cumbersome to reach without that red green decorated monster, that tells everyone who we meet on the road that we are abandoning the public transportation system for the day. Yesterday we did it for the first time. We visited my brother and sister-in-law in a location easy to reach by public transportation while using our OV cards, as we have done before, but rationalized that after that visit proceeding to my parents graves would be the real reason to go greenwheeling, since it would take a half hour bicycling or extra walking from the nearest bus station, something we also have done before.
We will spare you the details on how to get in the car and what to do with a board computer while in the car, even about the process of tanking with the Greenwheel gas card which requires a payment pin that alluded me. One cannot enter the wrong pin more than 3 times or one will have to pay without reimbursement the 9 plus dollars a gallon. Frantic calls therefore to the "Greenwheel madam" ensued.
So what were the pleasures of that driving day?
Besides needing 40 minutes to get out of town, where one-way narrow roads filled with pedestrians, bicycles and trams fill Sandee with horror, as she expects an accident anytime and almost not placing the car back in its parking spot within the allotted time frame for the same reasons?
The trip led us over country back roads with views of wonder, picturing small communities and open meadows with udder laden cows and little lambs prancing around mama, country estates of long gone days encroached by roads and homes more recently built on their previous manicured gardens. It was a sinfully delightful day and we watch "our" little cars across the canal wistfully anticipating a future fall to their everlasting tease.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


So here I am sitting in front of our window looking occasionally up from my typing over our Singel canal to watch what's going on out there: bicycles, lots of them weaving their way around pedestrians, cars and other bicycles as well as trucks parked on the bridge. We are privileged to live in a bend of the canal, so that looking straight forward through the window affords us the unrestricted view of the canal flowing under three bridges toward the Y harbor which lies behind the three towers of the Noorderkerk (northern church) which offers our horizon along a tree lined canal view about a mile away. The sun illuminates the fresh green on the trees and casts shadows on the passing boats under them. The sounds of passing people talking multiple languages as well as the warning rings of oncoming bicycles often sporting wheelbarrow sized boxes in front of them with babies or infants strapped inside of these boxes who are swerving around unsuspecting pedestrians while avoiding oncoming cars. All this brings sufficient entertainment right in front of us, couch potatoes, who often prefer these scenes above television.
As the morning fades into the afternoon the terraces along the water fill with sun worshippers despite the low temperature of mid fifties as long as one can bask in the teasing sunlight which hides too often behind the clouds.
This is life in Amsterdam, constantly begging us to leave this sanctum and brave the streets in search of new sights, asking us to join the crowds and sit on terraces too, while nursing a beer or hot chocolate watching people go by be it at a different location. This old city is full of surprises around any corner you take. It offers those little unknown musea such as the "Katten museum" (cat museum) or het "tassen museum" (purses museum). It has more different types of cuisine than most cities in the US could ever dream of. It hides churches in attics and places a girl scantily clothed behind a glass paneled door right besides the bakery shop, displaying its sweets in competition with her. One can never tire from wandering this city with its century old houses as a background for its vibrant residents who with ease mingle with the everlasting throng of visitors. For us this is home too.